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The Fifth Century A.D.

by Michael Grant

Pub Date: March 17th, 1998
ISBN: 0-415-14753-0
Publisher: Routledge

The great popular classical historian (Greek and Roman Historians, 1995; Constantine the Great, 1994; etc.) here meditates briefly on the century that saw the death agony of the Roman Empire and the birth pangs of the “new Rome” of the East, a civilization that would persist, against great odds, for almost a thousand years. Since before the age of Constantine the Great (c. 272—337 a.d.), the Roman Empire had been divided for administrative convenience into eastern and western halves. Constantine unified the empire, but his achievement was short-lived: After Theodosius I died, in 395 a.d., the two halves became permanently riven into eastern and western empires. The eastern empire, based in Constantine’s old capital of Constantinople and held together by vigorous rulers, an all-powerful bureaucracy, and a vital citizen-army, repelled repeated barbarian invasions and gradually coalesced into the Byzantine Empire. Meanwhile, as Grant shows, the old locus of Roman imperium in the West quickly slid into desuetude: Alaric and his Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 a.d. Ganseric and the Vandals repeated this humiliation four decades later. By 476 a.d. petty principalities. Grant deftly sketches the distinctive cultural achievements of the early Byzantines in church architecture and in the visual arts; in literature, Grant points out, the Byzantines were not as accomplished as their western counterparts. In conclusion, Grant laments the sparse attention given the important eastern empire in historical scholarship and credits the Byzantines with the preservation of Western culture during Europe’s Dark Ages. So brief as to seem superficial at points, Grant’s study nonetheless is impressively erudite and characteristically well researched, and provides a fresh perspective on a century that was truly the best and worst of times. (44 b&w photos, 6 line drawings, not seen)